Nextel stars plug Chase in NYC

Published September 15, 2006

NEW YORK - The days when Dale Earnhardt Jr. could walk down a street in this metropolis without being recognized are long gone.

And that's just fine with the NASCAR star.

"I don't travel to New York to slip under the radar. That's really not why we're here," Earnhardt said Thursday at the ESPN Zone in Times Square.

Earnhardt and the other nine drivers in the Chase for the Nextel Cup appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman on Wednesday night and made the rounds on the early morning TV shows Thursday before gathering in Times Square.

Matt Kenseth, the top qualifier for the 10-race playoffs that open Sunday in New Hampshire, even earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records by hitting Kelly Ripa with 17 pies in a minute during his appearance on Live with Regis and Kelly.

"Most pies in a minute," Kenseth said. "I'm going to be in the book. That's cool."

Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon stopped by the ESPN Zone to visit the drivers - and get some inside information for the baseball team's NASCAR fantasy league. "I grew up a huge NASCAR fan, and pretty much everyone in our clubhouse is a NASCAR fan," Damon said. "I've seen these guys race week after week."

The drivers were excited to see Damon and his enthusiasm for NASCAR.

"It's very flattering when you see guys like Johnny supporting our sport," driver Jimmie Johnson said. "It's surprising how close they follow us."

Kevin Harvick has become a Yankees fan and is friends with trainer Gene Monahan.

"I came up here in 2001 to throw out the first pitch, and those guys were really good to me," Harvick said. "Gene is a huge fan of ours, and he and I talk occasionally. Those guys have been good to me, and I like to root for good people."

Mark Martin made it clear that he's out of his element in the city.

"It's pretty far from Batesville, Ark.," Martin said. "But some of the most interesting things in the world are going on here. It's great the way we're received by the people and the media here today compared to 20 years ago.

"For me this is the most special trip I've ever made to New York because it'll probably be one of my last, and it means that I'm part of the Chase. I'm having more fun this year up here than I've ever had. It's a really special honor to be part of this."

Johnson and Jeff Gordon have apartments in Manhattan.

Johnson spends more time in the city than any other driver.

And he's excited about the prospect of a proposed NASCAR track on Staten Island.

"Obviously, I think it's important for NASCAR to be up here," Johnson said. "It's really the last major market we need to be in. And for me, I could stay in my apartment and helicopter back and forth to Staten Island. That would be cool."